Alan Quinlan: Fearless young guns prove future of Irish rugby is bright
Given the difficulty of our fixture list, expecting a third successive title will be a tall order. Even so, I'm feeling a lot more positive about our chances this weekend than I was this time last week
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
The new boys certainly made their mark. In the context of what had happened, that harrowing World Cup defeat to Argentina, a hammering by an English side in the next big game, the failure of their experienced predecessors to step up to the plate, we needed something special.
And we got it. Not only did those debutants come of age but their confidence as well as their class was evident on a day when they proved that Irish rugby had a future rather than just a past.
This was February 2000. Scotland were the visitors, a country who had spent the entire 1990s undefeated against Ireland and who really fancied their chances against a team that had been beaten 50-18 by England the week before. And when they saw the starting XV, and the names of five kids they'd barely heard of, they must have licked their lips.
But even then we knew Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan, John Hayes and Simon Easterby would be something special. And time proved us right. And now? Now we have another group of first-timers, Garry Ringrose, James Tracy, Josh van der Flier, Ross Molony and Peter Dooley - all of whom made their Champions Cup debuts last weekend - and there is every reason to be excited again.
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"They might even be better than what's gone before," said Sean O'Brien during the week. And it made me stop to think. Could they?
Bear in mind that between them, Horgan, Easterby, O'Gara, Stringer and Hayes won 461 international caps and backboned the Irish team that won three Triple Crowns between 2004 and 2007.
By contrast, Ringrose, Tracy, Van der Flier, Molony and Dooley have it all to do and predictions in sport - as we well know - are fraught with danger.
And yet I'm inclined to agree with O'Brien, because it isn't just the ability that these guys have that excites me, it's their temperament.
Again, context is everything. A week ago, Irish rugby was stuck in its winter of discontent. Argentina had soured our World Cup experience. Leinster were on a losing streak in Europe, Munster in all competitions. A stench of failure was in the air - just like it was with the national team back in 2000.
And then over the course of last weekend, the mood music changed. Against Stade, we saw the old Munster and against Bath, we got a glimpse of the new Leinster. And we like what we see.
In particular, I have high hopes for Molony. He's hard, abrasive, industrious around the park, intelligent in the lineout.
If he can come into a game against Bath with next to no experience and perform as well as he did, then he's a fella who has got something. Likewise Dooley is a hard nut. Hard but skilful. You can say the same about Ringrose, Van der Flier, Tracy.
And to that list add these names: Rory Scannell - a proper footballer, explosive over the first few yards, a left-footer - Jack O'Donoghue, Niall Scannell, Liam O'Connor, Ultan Dillane, Kyle McCall, the other Sean O'Brien, Rory Scholes. I could go on because the talent pool doesn't end there.
But it isn't just a list of names that should excite you, it's their attitude, their confidence, their lack of inhibition when they step onto the big stage.
These guys don't look at the team-sheets of Bath, of Saracens, of anyone, and tip their cap. They look their opponent in the eye, and more or less say, 'I'm Ross Molony, I'm Garry Ringrose, who are you?'
And I love that about them. I love the cultural difference that exists in Irish rugby now compared to 20 years ago when I was breaking through. Then, we didn't expect to win. Now, these kids do.
Back then we didn't have a strength and conditioning programme worth the name. Our skill-set was incomplete. We had to learn the hard way.
I remember an awful defeat in Perpignan back in 1998 when we sat around afterwards and wondered if we'd ever be good enough to compete. We just couldn't see how things would improve.
And now? Now, the young Irish rugby player has grown up in a culture of success. They've seen Munster win two Heineken Cups, Leinster three. They've seen Ireland win three Six Nations tournaments since 2009, seen an Irishman captain the Lions, seen an Irish team dominate a Lions selection.
So they don't do fear. They probably don't even know about what happened in the 1990s, a decade when our national team didn't win a game against any of the big three from the southern hemisphere, when they lost seven out of nine against England, when they couldn't beat France or Scotland even once. When even Italy had a positive win/loss record against us and when, as young players, all we hoped for was a shock result.
Then along came the golden generation and the culture changed. Now, those guys have moved off the stage and a new generation have arrived to take their place. But can they really be better than what's gone before?
Possibly they can. And it isn't just because of their skill-set or their conditioning. It's because of their belief, the fact they have grown up in a resilient environment where guys are used to the emotional roller coaster of professional sport, where victories - like Leinster and Munster had in the Heineken Cup, like Ireland have had in the Six Nations - are mixed in with defeats.
In contrast, back in the 1990s we knew far too much about the defeats and not enough about the victories. These boys have seen both sides of the game already, have profited from the mindset change in Irish rugby and have absolute faith in their ability to be successful.
Does this mean - Van der Flier aside - they should be excluded from Joe Schmidt's squad? For now, it does. Why rush these things?
Why expose talented - but raw - kids to international rugby with Ireland when they have yet to experience knockout rugby with their clubs?
What they don't know yet, but what I do from experience, is that the international player is a different beast to the club pro. He does things faster and better. He makes fewer mistakes. His focus and intensity is greater on international day, possibly because he knows the world is watching, definitely because he knows it has to be this way.
So while Ringrose, Molony, Scannell and the rest are the boys for tomorrow, it is McCloskey and Stander who justifiably are the men for today. And I would pick both to start against the Welsh. Stander, I like, partially because he has come through the hard way.
When he first arrived in Munster, he barely spoke English. It was a while before he broke into the team. Now he is the captain of it. And captain of a team who have had to struggle this year.
In this context, the fact he has won so many man of the match awards is testament to his character. McCloskey, too, has an impressive temperament. If you can do it against Toulouse - home and away - then you can step up to the next level.
Van der Flier has been excellent this season too and the fourth uncapped player included in Schmidt's squad, Dillane, has improved hugely in the last year. His development has been fascinating to watch.
And the next two months will prove just as interesting. The air of doom and gloom which has existed since that defeat to Argentina has been justified.
There is no getting away from the disappointment of Munster and Leinster's European failure. You want your provinces qualifying for the quarter-finals. You want the positivity that provincial success can bring.
I had it. I remember going into Six Nations camps on the back of Munster qualifying for quarter-final after quarter-final and feeling good about myself, feeling confident about my game.
In contrast, this season's Munster and Leinster players won't be feeling as positive. And yet, compared to a week ago, the mood has improved. Victories do so much to the mindset of a professional rugby player. Will it be enough to push Ireland to Six Nations success?
Given the difficulty of our fixture list and the away days in Paris and London, expecting a third successive title will be a tall order. Even so, I'm feeling a lot more positive about our chances today than I was this time last week.